AMWA: Closely divided Congress complicates policy landscape for 2021

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies released an update in it’s Monday Morning Briefing today noting that a thinly divided Congress could result in a complex policy landscape on many issues including water and infrastructure.

Voters across the country delivered somewhat mixed messages on Election Day, sending Joe Biden to the White House but also withholding the decisive victory that some had expected for congressional Democrats. Much remains to be settled in the coming weeks and months, but it is apparent that when lawmakers convene for the 117th Congress in January neither party will have any margin for error when attempting to advance policy priorities.

As of late last week Democrats were positioned to maintain their hold on the House of Representatives, but with a weakened majority will fall short of earlier expectations of building on their current 17-vote advantage. When all the votes are counted, it is anticipated that Republicans could end up with a net gain of as many as ten House seats.

The picture is more complicated in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a three-seat advantage. Democrats fell well short of predictions that they could win upwards of a half-dozen new seats, netting a gain of just one seat so far. But by week’s end the party still appeared to have a narrow path to gaining control of the chamber for the first time since 2014. This is because no candidate in either of Georgia’s two Senate races broke the 50 percent threshold the state requires for an outright victory. Now both races are headed to runoffs on January 5, and two Democratic wins could leave the party with precisely 50 Senate seats. Combined (following a Joe Biden victory) with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, this would give Democrats a bare majority in the Senate.

The closer-than-expected outcome in the presidential and congressional races muddles what otherwise might have been an aggressive Democratic governing agenda in 2021. Democratic leaders had eyed a suite of legislative priorities including a multi-trillion-dollar COVID-19 package, economic stimulus with an infrastructure component, global climate change, and reform of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s contaminant regulatory process. The Democratic House should still be able to advance these initiatives through the lower chamber, but most would face long odds in a Republican Senate. And even if Democrats attain a narrow Senate majority, some of the party’s more ambitious proposals might have to be scaled back to gain passage. As a result, some degree of compromise between both parties will probably be necessary in order to advance any significant legislation next year.

With Democrats holding the House, the chamber’s Democratic leadership structure is expected to remain intact. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will likely seek to return as speaker, Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.) will continue to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) will keep hold of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Paul Tonko (N.Y.) will again chair the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee. Conversely, there will be turnover on the Republican side of the Energy and Commerce panel, as current ranking member Greg Walden (Ore.) and top Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee Republican John Shimkus (Ill.) are each retiring.

Though control of the Senate remains up in the air, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are each expected to continue to lead their respective caucuses. Delaware’s Tom Carper will return as the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, while West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito is in line to take over as the top Republican. But who will chair the panel – or serve as Senate Majority Leader – will not be decided until the results of Georgia’s January runoff elections are in.

The Association of Metrolitan Agencies AMWA will continue to engage with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The association is planning outreach to the president-elect and will also develop a suite of water policy recommendations to distribute on Capitol Hill in 2021.

In the near-term, the Senate returns to Washington this week to begin a post-election lame duck session that is expected to focus on approving a stopgap government funding bill and additional COVID-19 response legislation. The House is expected to return next week.

This update originally appeared in the Nov. 9 Monday Morning Briefing from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies

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